The Power of the Parable

“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock” (Matthew 7:24 KJV). Using a simile, Jesus, the son of God, began to tell an engaging story to the crowds in simple yet profound language they could all understand. Without a seminary degree or specialized speech training, the Anointed One engaged multitudes of people with stories of common life that enlightened the listeners with spiritual truths. These stories evoked thought and stirred the spirit, emotions, and intellect. As Jesus ended the story of the wise man and foolish man, “the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (28-29).

Many of the simple and memorable stories which Jesus told are called parables. A parable is a similitude, or a narrative, of common life that conveys a lesson, moral, or duty. The Greek word for parable “literally denotes a placing beside…. It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). As Thayer’s Greek Definitions states: “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” It is a comparison or analogy drawn from nature or human circumstances to teach a spiritual lesson. Jesus used metaphors and stories that were pertinent to the culture. Jesus taught the truth about an unfamiliar subject by comparing it to things that were familiar to the people. He explained and illustrated deep truths with well-known imagery such as the lessons of the farmer sowing seed or the traveler on the way to Jericho (Good Samaritan). These illustrations were relatable to the time and generation to which He spoke and had great relevance in understanding and meaning to the hearer.

Parables comprised more than one third of Christ’s teachings. Many of the stories were simple and easy to understand. Often, His parables, while detailed and interesting, were told to convey a singular truth or message. Christ, a master teacher, is an example to be emulated still today. His illustrative teachings and application of life lessons under the power of the Holy Spirit are not easily forgotten.

The parables of Christ, which are much easier to understand and to remember than a dry, theological discourse, reveal details about God, His character, the kingdom of God, etc. Much doctrinal truth is found in the simplicity of the parables. The deceptiveness of sin and the forgiveness of the Father are immortalized in the powerful story of the prodigal son. The importance of prayer is seared into the memory with the parable of the importunate widow. A tale of the ten virgins forever reminds us of the importance of living ready for the unexpected return of the bridegroom. The story of the lost sheep reveals the loving nature of the seeking Savior for the lost.  The beautiful parables of Christ are gems of truth and are worthy of continual study and sharing with others. ■

The Purpose of Parables

Jesus used parables to teach a truth or to answer a question. He used real-life situations in His stories to connect with His audience. A lawyer once stood tempting Jesus and asked Him: “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). Jesus proceeded to tell the story of the good Samaritan. Jesus then asked: “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” (v. 36). The answer was evident in the related story, but it caused the listeners to consider and think for themselves. It elicited truth from those who otherwise might have rejected a declarative statement.

The parables of Christ often reveal the truth in a way that a simple declaration would not. Those who have honest, seeking hearts will hear and understand. The telling of parables is a way to convey and reveal truth in ways easy to be understood as in the above illustration.

Other parables that Jesus told were presented in such a way as to conceal truth from those who were choosing to walk in darkness. “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?  He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.  Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” (Matthew 13:10-13). The unbeliever may incorrectly understand the primary point of a parable, as it is hidden to those who “hear not.” It was not uncommon for the disciples to return to Christ and ask for a more in-depth explanation of a parable.

Parables are easy to recall for their detailed imagery and hence are useful to remember spiritual truths. They were and remain vital to the preservation of truth for people of all cultures and backgrounds. ■

Keys to Studying Parables

The study of parables is an interesting and profound way to learn many of the doctrines and teachings of Christ. They are more than stories; they are practical tools to reveal deep doctrinal truths. The primary purpose of a truth conveyed in a parable will never contradict other doctrinal scriptures; rather, other scriptures and prophecies more difficult to understand should always be interpreted to agree with the simplicity of the teachings of Christ. It is vital to examine parables with honesty and openness to grasp their true significance more fully. The tips below can help facilitate a sound approach to understanding the wonderful parables of Jesus Christ.

Consider the Literary Context

Study the context of the parable. Examine what is said in the text before and after the parable. Often, Jesus explicitly states the purpose or meaning of the parable told. The parable of the persistent widow and the judge in
Luke 18:2-6 could be badly misinterpreted without considering the context. One might infer by the story itself that God is unjust and uncaring. That is not the point of the parable; rather, Jesus stated the purpose in verse one: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”

Examine Details Correctly

Some parables have details that do not have great spiritual significance. They are given to enhance the story and to paint a picture illustrating an overriding spiritual truth. The parable of the unjust judge does not illustrate God but rather the details were used to demonstrate the importunity and tenacity of the widow. Be careful about attaching spiritual significance to every detail of a parable.

It is said that “a parable is not designed to walk on all fours.” Every detail is not a unique lesson or analogy. For this reason, parables are not always true allegories, as every detail does not have spiritual meaning. Assigning a meaning to every detail can derail the true meaning of a parable.

Observe Repeated Imagery

Many times images Jesus used are repeated in the Scripture and have similar meaning from parable to parable. Often, a master, judge, or king represents God. Workers and servants illustrate followers of God. Sheep represent children of God, and goats represent the unredeemed. A shepherd, keeper of the vineyard, or the son of a king often represents Christ.

What Prompted the Parable?

When Jesus told parables, He was sometimes answering a question or addressing an attitude of people present. In Luke 15, Jesus told parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Jesus told these parables in response to the Pharisees and scribes murmuring and saying, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them (v. 2).” Understanding what instigated these parables helps one understand the point of the parables. In this case it was to demonstrate  God’s attitude toward sinners.

Look for the One Main Point

Parables are told to make a point. As you read, carefully examine the central truth that Jesus is communicating and do not forget the context or the reason Jesus told the story to begin with. To help keep focused on the point, consider the answers to these questions:

  1. What is the main contrast found in the parable?
  2. Who are the main characters?
  3. Who or what is the primary focus in the parable?
  4. What happens in the conclusion of the parable?

Study the Cultural & Historical Setting

Greater understanding of a parable can be derived when one has a greater understanding of the historical and cultural setting. Some parables allude to an event or practice that the Jews of the time understood. This is exemplified with the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. The man without a wedding garment was cast into outer darkness. One might feel badly for this poor man who did not have access to proper clothing until one learns that at the time Jesus told this story, it was the practice of the host to provide a proper garment for his guests. In reality, the man had chosen not to wear what was provided. This gives much greater understanding to the doctrinal truth of hell and punishment in this parable.

Interpretation

The interpretation of a parable should be in harmony with the rest of the scripture and the teachings of Christ and the apostles. While truths can be derived from a story, the reader must be careful about building a doctrine from what could be an improper interpretation of a parable. A parable is by definition a contrast between two things. If the parable is about the kingdom of God, the interpretation should be about the kingdom of God, not how the story applies to family, political events, etc.  Remember, most parables have a singular meaning.

Throughout history people have assigned fanciful, allegorical meanings to some parables. This often contradicts the stated or implied purpose of the parable. Martin Luther called some allegorical interpretations of the parables “amazing twaddle” and “altogether useless.”

Analyze and Apply

After a parable has been read and analyzed for proper interpretation, it is important to apply the doctrine to oneself. What does this teach me about the kingdom of God and of things to come? How does this truth apply in my life? What would God have me to do?

The study of the parables will bring great blessings, challenges, and encouragement to the reader. Let us seek to know, study to understand, and pursue the knowledge of God that we may be found faithful at the coming of our Lord. ■